RICHMOND, Va. – Thousands of gun owners and gun rights supporters gathered Monday at Virginia’s Capitol for a “peaceful day to address our Legislature” that appeared to generate none of the violence feared by some state leaders.
Many demonstrators, opposed to proposed gun restrictions, openly displayed military-style semiautomatic rifles. Other wore orange “Guns save lives” stickers as the crowd chanted “USA” and sang the national anthem. Signs read “Come and take it” and “Second Amendment Sanctuary.”
But despite warnings from Gov. Ralph Northam and law enforcement that out-of-state hate groups and militias may incite violence, the protest did not grow heated. Police estimated the size of the crowd at 22,000 – including 6,000 people inside Capitol Square – and only one arrest was reported.
Police said Mikaela E. Beschler, 21, of Richmond, was charged with one felony count of wearing a mask in public after being warned twice before against wearing a bandanna covering her face. Beschler was released on her recognizance.
Demonstrator Matthew French, 40, from Bland, called the rally a success and said he hoped the large, peaceful crowd would help sway legislators.
“The sheer numbers here speaks for itself,” he said. “I hope our legislators will back off. Today was the civil rights march of my life.”
Tom Rohde, 49, of West Point, said he was happy to see no violence.
“You got thousands of guns and not a single bullet fired,” he said.
Earlier, a heavy police presence greeted rally goers calmly lining up to enter the state Capitol, where they had to pass through a security checkpoint.
Connie Stanley, 58, from Aylett, came to the rally with a group of women. She sees owning a gun and the Second Amendment as a security issue. She said where she lives, it could take police too long to respond if she calls 911.
“As a woman, I feel like it’s about protection,” she said.
Northam declared a state of emergency Friday through Tuesday, banning all weapons, including firearms, in the square around the Capitol building. He said law enforcement received “credible” threats of violence from out-of-state hate groups and militias.
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At least six suspected members of a violent neo-Nazi group were arrested last week in Maryland and Georgia. Authorities feared three of the men planned to try to incite violence at the rally.
On Monday, law enforcement helicopters buzzed overhead as state, city and Capitol police kept a wary eye on the crowds. Barricades lined the streets and many shops were closed.
Demonstrator Brantley Overby, 22, came armed to Richmond from Henderson, North Carolina. He said whenever there’s a large group like the one here, carrying a firearm is about safety.
“It’s a sense of security,” he said of having a gun. “If something happens, you have the option to use it.”
He said he came to Virginia because he fears similar laws could pass in North Carolina and around the U.S.
“This is the first attack on the Second Amendment I’ve seen in a long time.”
Tim Hunter, 45, from Richmond, said the Second Amendment is important to veterans like him. He served in Desert Storm in the Army
“There’s a reason it’s number two on the list,” he said.
Hunter was inside Capitol Square, where tight security and fences lined the perimeter.
Hunter and everyone else inside the grounds “willfully decided to leave our weapons at home,” he said. “If we come out here as an armed mob, nobody is going to listen.”
While more than a thousand gathered inside the grounds, many more were outside rallying. Flags bearing President Donald Trump’s name and “don’t tread on me” poked up above the crowd as the smaller crowd inside the Capitol grounds watched. “We will not comply,” the large crowd outside the gates chanted.
The day was planned as a “lobby day” by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which has organized similar events to advocate for gun rights for years. A mass movement grew out of the scheduled protest this year, however, drawing interest from people who had “malicious plans” for the rally, Northam said.
Authorities were determined to ensure that the rally didn’t spark chaos that marked a 2017 white nationalist protest in Charlottesville. Clashes broke out at the “Unite the Right” rally, and a neo-Nazi rammed his car into a crowd, killing a counter protester. Some of the militia groups that said they would attend the rally in Richmond are the same ones that attended that rally, the Daily Beast reported.
“No one wants another incident like the one we saw at Charlottesville,” Northam said. “We will not allow that mayhem and violence to happen here.”
Ben Rego, 43, from Chesapeake, was at his first “lobby day.” Rego said Northam and Democrats’ proposals have activated people like him, who otherwise wouldn’t come out to the state Capitol, to show their opposition.
“These laws aren’t being done in good faith,” he said. He worries that if a few pass, many more gun-control regulations will come and spread to other states.
The Second Amendment is about self-defense and protection from a tyrannical government, he says. He believes the latter is being lost in the discussion around gun control.
“It’s a touchy subject, but it’s important,” he said.
Driving the momentum behind the Richmond rally was a host of new gun-control measures backed by Northam and Democrats, who flipped both houses of the General Assembly and have full control of state government for the first time since 1993.
Democrats proposed limiting handgun purchases to one a month, universal background checks on gun sales, allowing localities to ban guns in some public areas and a “red flag” bill that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from anyone deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.
Other proposals include rules around reporting lost or stolen firearms and a ban on “assault firearms,” though some moderate Democrats have expressed concerns over that bill.
Advocates for the gun-control laws say Virginians signaled their approval of the proposals when they elected a Democrat-controlled General Assembly in November. Many Democrats campaigned on the issue of guns, and gun laws were the most important voting issues before the election among both Democrats and Republicans, according to a Washington Post-George Mason poll.
Northam has worked to dispel the idea that he intends to go “door-to-door” with authorities to take away people’s guns. He says the bills are intended to keep Virginians safer, but his detractors see them as infringing on their rights to bear arms.
“All these bills are basically steps in the direction of disarming people,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
Adding fuel to the fire: Trump on Friday tweeted that the Second Amendment was “under very serious attack” in Virginia.
In the weeks leading up to the rally, more than 100 counties, cities and towns declared themselves “sanctuaries” for the Second Amendment, saying they would not enforce unconstitutional gun laws.
While the “sanctuary” resolutions passed in many localities have been seen by supporters as a way to fight back against Northam’s proposals, legal experts say those resolutions are largely symbolic as local law cannot supersede state law.
State Attorney General Mark Herring called the “sanctuary” resolutions “part of an effort by the gun lobby to stoke fear” and said they have “no legal force.”
Similar gun-control proposals have survived constitutional challenges in other states, Ernest McGowen, a political science professor at University of Richmond, told USA TODAY. Compared to other states, what Virginia Democrats are proposing is no more extreme than other gun-control measures, he said.
“When you really drill down into it, it’s definitely a swing to the left,” he said. “But not one of those things where Northam is saying, ‘Take away everyone’s guns.'”
Contributing: Jorge Ortiz